#105 “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell (#13 on The List)

Cloud Atlas

by Michael Niewodowski

#105 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (#13 on The List).

“Based on the novel by David Mitchell”

A great film is like a novel delivered in its entirety in about two to three hours.

I saw the film version of Cloud Atlas a few months ago, and I was blown away.  It was a breathtaking, sprawling, and thought provoking film.  After seeing the film, I checked out the novel to see how they compare.

Cloud Atlas consists of six separate stories, spanning centuries and all the stories are interconnected.  The novel begins with the first half of each story- a journal by a merchant at sea on the Pacific Ocean in the 1800’s, a set of letters from Belgium to a lover in the 1930’s, a conspiracy murder mystery story from the 1970’s, an Englishman’s memoirs from the 2000’s, a final prisoner interview from Korea in the 2100’s, and an oral yarn from a post-apocalyptic Hawaii set far in the future.  Then the novel works its way backwards in time telling the second half of each story.  Imagine nesting Russian dolls.  One of the amazing things about the novel is the author’s range- each story is completely different from the others.  The interconnectedness is even more amazing- each story references the one before it: in the letters, the lover reads the Pacific journal and comments on it, the heroine in the murder mystery reads and studies the lover’s letters (as well as searching out and listening to his musical composition “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”), the Englishman reads and later publishes the murder mystery, the Korean prisoner watches the film version of the Englishman’s memoirs, and the people of the post-apocalyptic Hawaii worship the heroine of the Korean prisoner interview as a god.  Furthermore, the main character in each story has a matching birthmark in the shape of a comet.  Are we meant to believe that the main character of each story is a reincarnated version of the earlier?  The heroine of the murder mystery believes so; the Englishman flat out denies it.  The novel leaves that and many other decisions to the imagination of the reader- especially, ‘how may one’s actions affect others, even centuries later?’.

The film version follows each of the six stories faithfully.  However, instead of telling half of each story chronologically, then working its way backwards in time with the second half, the movie continuously shifts from story to story.  Amazingly, this is very effective in telling each separate story as well as connecting them.  I imagine that a great deal of deliberation went into this decision; the producers must have considered telling each story consecutively, and also considered following the novel directly.  For a visual experience, the continual shifting was probably the best decision- it keeps the viewer on his toes to keep up with each story as well as the connections.  Another excellent decision the filmmakers made was to have the same actors play different roles in each story- Tom Hanks plays the main character in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, Halle Berry plays the heroine in the murder mystery, etc; each actor also appears in a supporting role (often unrecognizably made-up) in each of the other stories.

I am and always have been a huge movie fan.  I am ambivalent about book to movie films, however. The old adage is true- the book is ALWAYS better than the movie, but a good adaptation can be wonderful.  In general, I enjoy watching the movie adaptation before reading the book; I have never found an adapted film version that I did not later greatly enjoy reading the book.  However, if I read a book first, and then see the film, I am often disappointed by the changes and disparities.  Many people disagree with me on this point. When learning or teaching a Shakespeare play, I find it very helpful to see as many film adaptations of the play as possible; literary critic Stephen Greenblatt praised Shakespeare for his “extraordinary malleability”.  I have seen dozens of film and stage versions of Macbeth, and I learn something new from each adaptation.

On the flip side, a poor adaptation of a great book can make me furious!  Films like “I Am Legend”, “The Scarlet Letter”, and “Sleepy Hollow” are travesties.  Any viewer would be far better off spending the money and time reading the actual book instead of watching the film adaptation.

Book to film adaptations can be tricky: I thoroughly enjoyed “Life of Pi”, even though I saw it after reading the book.  “Les Miserables” is a book to stage musical to film version- it worked for me; for many others is was a ‘miserable’ experience.  I am far more enamored with The Hobbit novel than the recent movie.  “Cloud Atlas” stands out as a film to rival Cloud Atlas the novel.  That’s a rare feat.

Cloud Atlas 2

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#104 “The Graduate” by Charles Webb (#428 on The List)

by Michael Niewodowski

#104 The Graduate by Charles Webb (#428 on The List).

“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.”  This is one of the most famous and memorable lines in the history of film.  The popularity of the film version has made Charles Webb’s The Graduate very familiar.  The 1963 novel and the 1967 film are both light satire of early 1960’s Americana.  Despite my mother’s description of the material as “pure pornography”, the content is not all that shocking- far less than what is found in any given Shakespeare play.  Both novel and film versions are amusing, but I found the novel to be much, much funnier.  Faced with dozens of extremely awkward moments, the main character, Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate, must find a way to graduate to adulthood.

Growing up is difficult and awkward.  Adolescence can be especially trying, as children learn to become adults.  After working with teenagers for eight years, I learned a lot about this topic.  Like an anthropologist, I studied their habits and activities.  One popular activity is to relate humorous anecdotes of awkward situations.  On Facebook, a teenager will update his status to: ‘That awkward moment when….’ For example: ‘That awkward moment when you say hi to your crush’ or ‘That awkward moment when everyone is serious and you start laughing’.  Usually, these moments are displayed as a source of humor and solidarity; those who relate click ‘like’ on the status update.  I would have loved to have seen Benjamin Braddock’s Facebook status updates:  ‘That awkward moment when your father’s business partner’s wife tries to seduce you….and she’s naked’ or ‘That awkward moment when you have to tell the girl that you have been dating that you have had an affair with her mother.’  I don’t imagine too many teenagers or young adults would completely relate to Braddock’s situation; I imagine he would have still gotten a lot of ‘likes’.

I was a very, very awkward teenager.  I am very tall (six feet, nine inches), and my body grew very fast; I was 6’7” in seventh grade, just as I was entering my teenage years.  Far from intimidating, I was as skinny as a rail and extremely uncoordinated.  I didn’t ‘fill out’ until I was in my twenties, and it took even longer for my coordination and mental capabilities to catch up.  After I graduated college, I attended culinary school; learning culinary arts did wonders for my coordination and motor skills.  Yet, after years of dealing with awkwardness, I still had mental blocks in certain areas.

In my mid-twenties, I was a journeyman chef living in Cincinnati, Ohio.  One night, my friends and I went to a club.  I couldn’t dance, and I stood out like a sore thumb; for years, I had avoided clubs and dances.  That night, some girls saw me floundering and laughed at me.  That was the last straw.  In true Niewodowski fashion, I completely over-compensated: I signed up for year long, twice weekly ballroom dance lessons.  The dance lessons at Arthur Murray turned out to be a wonderful experience!  For a year, I waltzed, mambo-ed, fox-trotted, swinged (swung?), hustled, cha-cha-ed, and rumba-ed with the prettiest girls in town.  However, for the first few weeks of lessons, I had to force myself to overcome a serious mental block; before each lesson my hands would shake, I would sweat, and I would stutter with fear.  My dance instructor must have thought I was a basket case upon first getting to know me.  Emotions have never been accused of being rational.

Although I had graduated college and culinary school,  I don’t feel like I matriculated into adulthood until I learned to dance.  All of us face trials and tribulations as we grow from teenagers to adults.  Fortunately, most of us graduate into adulthood without having to face ‘that awkward moment when you and your ex-mistress’ husband confrontationally discuss her sexual techniques’ like Benjamin Braddock.

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#103 “Regeneration” by Pat Barker (#170 on The List)

by Michael Niewodowski

#103 Regeneration by Pat Barker (#170 on The List)

I have been apprehensive to write this journal entry.  I am going to touch on politics, and that is something I am loath to do in a public forum.  I am a very proud, patriotic American, and the deep political divides in this country pain me.  I have chosen to move forward, however, with courage and the hopes that my few readers will bear with a view that may differ from their own without hatred or attack.

Pat Barker’s Regeneration deals with the recovery and regeneration of World War One English soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (then called Shell Shock) at a mental hospital called Craiglockhart.  I have experiences with PTSD, but I think I will write about that in another entry; after all, Regeneration is the first novel in a trilogy, and the other two novels are on ‘The List’.  Barker interweaves fact and fiction in the novel: Craiglockhart War Hospital was real, as were the main characters Dr. W. H. R. Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon. The novel begins with a cannonball: a decorated soldier, Sassoon, has submitted a declaration of objection to the war and his refusal to take part in it any longer.  The letter has been published in the London Times, and has received a great deal of attention.  Unsure of how to deal with his declaration, the ‘powers that be’ send Sassoon to Craiglockhart for an examination of his sanity.

Many people objected to the military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade.  Some went so far as to call the wars ‘immoral’.  I think that it is difficult enough to examine the morality of a person’s daily decisions, much less the morality of an entire war.  Counter-terrorism and foreign policy issues are extremely important to me; when I vote, at least 51% of my decision is based on these issues.  After my experiences on September 11, 2001, I doubt that anyone could blame me for this choice (except, of course, for the ideologues).  I fully support the Bush administration’s decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.  I truly believe that the United States is safer because of our military intervention overseas.  Whether or not all the facts were clear before the invasions, whether we are much safer or only slightly safer, whether it was moral or immoral are questions that I will leave to the many talking heads on cable networks.  At the very least, it is clear that these were hugely humanitarian efforts; the people of both countries are far better off with democracy in place rather than murderous dictators.  I also fully support the Obama administration’s covert invasions of Pakistani areas to eradicate Al-Qaeda cells, and especially Osama bin Laden.

It is interesting to me, however to compare the two approaches.  On the one hand, the Bush administration used a multilateral coalition invasion of enemy countries, whereas the Obama administration has used frequent covert, unilateral raids in an ally country.  There is no question that President Bush could have ordered unilateral strikes into Pakistan to eliminate terrorist cells, and probably even Osama bin Laden; the technology and force were certainly available.  Bush believed that diplomatic relations with Pakistan outweighed the risks of invading a tenuous ally in the volatile Middle East; only after seven years of diplomacy did Bush begin to work with the Pakistani government to request raids and ground skirmishes on the Afghan/Pakistani border.  Despite the many, many characterizations to the opposite, it seems that President Bush was a diplomat and that President Obama is a cowboy.  This is not a criticism, just an observation; I am a fan of diplomats and cowboys alike.

The Bush administration’s hope was that democracy in the Middle East would spread like wildfire- that upon witnessing democracy in Israel, Iraq, and Afghanistan, other Middle East countries would overthrow despotic dictators and insist on democracy.  I thought this was a very quixotic view when it was announced.  Amazingly, the last few years have seen exactly this situation: in Egypt, Syria, and Libya, the people have fought or are fighting to overthrow oppressive dictators and install democracy.  The actions of the Obama administration in Pakistan remain to be seen.  A nuclear Pakistan would make a very powerful, very dangerous enemy to the United States.  I hope that our relations have not been damaged beyond repair.

From what I understand of World War I, it was the most immoral war fought in the western world in modern times.  It was the first time that modern technology played a role in warfare, and gas warfare was so horrific that it became outlawed after the war at the Geneva Convention.  The war was based on centuries of prejudice, misunderstandings, and militarism. Unlike the recent wars in the Middle East, World War I did not end tyranny or oppression; it merely set the stage for the rise of fascism and communism and World War II (a war which did indeed end tyranny and oppression).  The ‘fog of war’ precludes us from seeing what long-term results will come from our military actions in the Middle East; we can only hope that we follow the important lessons we have learned from the mistakes of World War I and the triumphs of World War II.

Novels like Regeneration are important reminders of these lessons. By the end of the novel, Sassoon is even more adamant about his declaration of objection, and rightly so.  Regeneration should be required reading for all U.S. military leaders.

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#102 “The Temptation of St. Antony” by Gustave Flaubert (#845 on The List)

by Michael Niewodowski

Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Antony is a religious hallucination.  St. Antony of Egypt (cir. 251-356) was an ascetic monk that lived in the Libyan Desert; he is said to have experienced supernatural temptations. In Flaubert’s novel, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Greek gods, Lust, Death, demons, heretics, science, the Sphinx, and others tempt him.  Like the many paintings that St. Antony’s story has inspired, Flaubert’s work is surreal, spectacularly visual, and nearly impenetrably dense.

There are some pretty fantastic highlights.  The Greek gods appear in all their glory, with Hercules holding up Mt. Olympus; eventually Hercules is crushed by the weight of the mountain, and all the gods perish.  Later, Antony rides on the horns of the Devil as they fly into space, past stars and galaxies while the Devil argues science and reason.

When I was twelve years old, I went on a religious pilgrimage to the small village of Medugorje in the former Yugoslavia (now Bosnia/Herzegovina), where supposedly the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared to six children since 1981; this has not been confirmed nor denied by the Catholic Church.  While I was there, many other pilgrims experienced religious hallucinations: one person reported an out of body experience, others said their rosaries turned to gold, and yet others said that the mountainsides were lit up at night by brilliant supernatural lights.  I didn’t see any gold rosaries, and the mountains looked dark to me.  One American family claimed to see the ‘miracle of the sun’ in which the sun dances, splits, and changes colors and shapes.  I was sitting very nearby this family while they were experiencing this hallucination; I looked at the sun, but didn’t see anything.  I prayed and prayed to see what they were seeing, but the sun didn’t change.  I asked my father why I couldn’t see it; he told me, “If you stare long enough into the sun, you’ll see all sorts of strange things.” (Indeed, each member of the family described seeing a different version of the dancing sun.)  I felt like something was wrong with me- that my faith was not strong enough because I did not experience any of these ‘miracles’.  Later, I came to realize that I was a lot like the child that recognized that the Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.  One of the things I did notice about all the pilgrims that experienced religious hallucinations- they were all quick to brag about the ‘miracles’ they had experienced, like it was a status symbol of their faith.  My own mother, the most religious person I know, did not experience any religious hallucinations on that trip.

At the end of The Temptation of St. Antony, Antony, having defeated all temptations, sees the face of Jesus Christ in the disc of the sun.  Finally at peace, he makes the sign of the cross and returns to his prayers.

I no longer hold resentment towards the pilgrims that experienced religious hallucinations.  Many members of other religions put themselves into altered states through asceticism like St. Antony to have religious hallucinations.  They seem to experience a great deal of joy from the ‘miracles’.  After all, the people all cheered with joy when they saw the Emperor’s new ‘clothes’.  I just hope that that American family didn’t experience permanent eye damage from staring at the sun for so long.   I choose to keep my health and wits instead of hallucinating to get closer to God.

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#101 “Dead Souls” by Nikolay Gogol (#914 on The List)

by Michael Niewodowski

#101 Dead Souls by Nikolay Gogol (#914 on The List)

Nikolay Gogol went completely mad as he was writing Dead Souls.  After reading the novel, this makes a lot of sense to me.  It starts out as a humorous, biting satire, but spirals off into near incomprehensibleness in the second part.  There are huge chunks of text missing, and the book ends unfinished- literally in mid-sentence.  Gogol died of self-inflicted starvation before he finished the novel.

In Dead Souls, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov travels the Russian countryside purchasing the deeds to dead serfs from rich landowners.  Chichikov has discovered a bureaucratic loophole that can help him to get rich by mortgaging the deeds to the dead serfs before the government realizes that they are dead; the dead souls are more valuable to him than the living serfs.  The satire is that the Russia would place more value on dead serfs than live ones.

Class distinction and inequality is an oft-used theme in literature.  Nowhere is it better satirized than in Dead Souls.  A lot has been said and written in the last few years about this issue: the “Occupy Wall Street” movement has targeted the top 1% of earners in the United States (those making over $500,000 a year).  I grew up in an upper-middle class family, now I am somewhere in the middle-lower-middle class to upper-lower-middle class range; each range has its own advantages and problems.  It is interesting to see how much attention society places on this issue, but apparently it is nothing new: “we have men so wise and adroit that they will speak to a landowner possessing but two hundred serf-souls in a way altogether different from that in which they will to one who possesses three hundred of them; while to him who possesses three hundred of them they will again speak not in the same way as they would with him that has five hundred souls…in brief, even if you were to go up to a million, you would find different shadings for each category.”  (Dead Souls, p. 57).   I think that most Americans in the “99%” would find themselves just as uncomfortable in the bottom 1% (making $2500 or less per year) as the top 1% would be.  Most of the populace in Gogol’s Russia would have fallen into this category of extremely poor.

This will sound base and unconnected, but one of the most enjoyable aspects of reading Russian literature is for the wonderful Russian character names.  Besides Chichikov, there are characters named Athanassii Vassilievich Murazov, Fedor Fedorovich Lenitzin, and Alexander Dmitrievich Betrischev.  Some of the names from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment are even more fun: Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov, etc.  If I ever write a novel, I will be sure to have a character with a great Russian name.

I think that the “Occupy Wall Street” people would learn a lot from reading Dead Souls and the information about Gogol; sometimes I worry that if they are too successful we’ll all have our exact income percentage projected on our foreheads.  According to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Gogol’s intention for Dead Souls was to “rekindle the noble yet dormant core of the Russian people, to transform the troubled social and economic landscape of Russia into the gleaming great Empire that was its destiny…he no longer wanted to write about Russia: he wanted to save it” (p. 112).  If we become too obsessed with fixing class inequality, we could, like Gogol, go stark raving mad.

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#57 Revisited “The Once and Future King” by T. H. White

 

by Michael Niewodowski

#57 Revisited The Once and Future King by T. H. White (#477 on The List)

Hic jacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rex que futurus (Here lies Arthur, king once, and king to be) – inscribed on King Arthur’s tomb.

 

‘Magical’ is not nearly a strong enough term for T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. This re-telling of the classic King Arthur legend is set in antiquity, but told in a modern style.  From the magician Merlyn’s training of young Arthur (the Wart) to the Knights of the Round Table to the Quest for the Holy Grail to Lancelot and Queen Guinevere’s affair to the tragic ending, one episode is more enchanting than the other.

The Arthurian legends have been told and retold throughout the centuries, setting the scene for Britain’s rich history of fantasy literature, including Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Lewis’ Narnia series, and Rowling’s Harry Potter series.  The Once and Future King has become a part of our culture; it inspired the Disney film “The Sword in the Stone” and the musical “Camelot”, and J.K. Rowling cited it as a major inspiration for her novels.  It seems strange, therefore, that White’s novel is not better known; it certainly deserves as much recognition as the aforementioned works.  When I chose the book from my list earlier this year, I had never heard of it and had no idea what it was about.

There is a great deal of knowledge and wisdom to be gained from reading The Once and Future King; in fact some of the wisest and most inspirational quotes I know comes from the novel.*  For me, however, reading this book is all about experiencing childlike wonder and joy.  Turning the pages of this novel is like unwrapping presents on Christmas morning.  Consider the following passage in which Merlyn becomes frustrated with the Wart’s training:

Merlyn took off his spectacles, dashed them on the floor and jumped on them with both feet.

‘Castor and Pollux blow me to Bermuda!’ he exclaimed, and immediately vanished with a frightful roar.

The Wart was still staring at his tutor’s chair in some perplexity, a few moments later, when Merlyn reappeared.  He had lost his hat and his hair and beard were tangled up, as if by a hurricane.  He sat down again, straightening his gown with trembling fingers.

‘Why did you do that?’ asked the Wart.

‘I did not do it on purpose.’

‘Do you mean to say that Castor and Pollux did blow you to Bermuda?’

‘Let this be a lesson to you,’ replied Merlyn, ‘not to swear…’

(…a lesson I might have done well to learn earlier in life.)

When I was in a graduate English class studying Shakespeare and Marlowe, our professor talked about how much she enjoyed reading Macbeth for the witches.  In the midst of hundreds of hours and thousands of pages of intensive literary criticism, our brilliant PhD professor spoke about the childlike joy she got out of reading about mystical characters.  How refreshing!

We read for a myriad of reasons: to learn, to escape, to change, and to grow.  One of the best reasons to read is for the sheer joy of it.  Personally, I’ve found no novel that has given me more joy than The Once and Future King.  I can hardly wait until my son is a little bit older so that I can read it to him.  What a glorious book!

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* “The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something.  That’s the only thing that never fails.  You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds.  There is only one thing for it then – to learn.  Learn why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.  Learning is the only thing for you.  Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

Note:  No reading of The Once and Future King is complete without the posthumously published conclusion, The Book of Merlyn, as White intended.  The Book of Merlyn itself has an interesting story as a “casualty of war.”

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#100 “Aesop’s Fables” by Aesopus

by Michael Niewodowski

#100 Aesop’s Fables by Aesopus (#1001 on The List)

And the moral of the story is……

Human beings are problem-solving animals.  In a purely physical fight with any animal of equal mass, a human is sure to lose; what really sets us apart is our capacity for complex problem solving.  In Aesop’s Fables, many animals are given human problem solving characteristics.  The animals in the fables can to teach us a great deal about ourselves.

Many of the fables and lessons are familiar: The tortoise and the hare = slow and steady wins the race; the goose that lays golden eggs = don’t ruin a good thing; the boy who cried wolf = you can’t believe a liar even when he tells the truth.  However, what struck me while reading these fables is that many of the morals are in disagreement with each other.  One teaching that is universal, however, is that a person’s true character cannot be changed; for example, in the fable of the crow and the swan, the crow takes up residence in the water in hopes to wash away the black and become as white as the swan = although you change your habits, you cannot change your nature.

Aesop’s Fables originate in ancient Greece, and many of them deal with the Greek gods and goddesses, including creation stories.  We tend to dismiss the ancient Greek beliefs as mythology, although it is evident that most of the ancient Greeks took the gods quite literally.  Nowadays, we are much more intelligent and educated. We all know that death is a natural and inevitable phenomenon, and not a personified supernatural being; we know that the earth revolves around the sun, and that Apollo doesn’t drive the sun across the sky with a chariot; we know that Zeus didn’t create the animals and give them all their characteristics.  Right?

I believed in creationism until I was in my twenties.  This was not ‘intelligent design’, but full-on creationism- as in God blinked the humans, the animals, the earth, and everything in it into existence in six days.  Although I was raised Catholic, I attended a Fundamentalist Christian school.  We were taught from books called Evolution: The Big Lie and others.  Our World History teacher assured us that there was irrevocable evidence of ‘the great flood’, and that the proof that humans and dinosaurs co-existed is many cultures’ legends of dragons.  I was taught and believed a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis.

My own father tried to educate me on this issue; I prayed for his soul.

When I finally learned and accepted scientific fact (thanks in large part to the Discovery Channel) it was a huge shock to my system.  Evolution was not a vast secular conspiracy to tear Christians away from their religious beliefs as I had been taught indoctrinated to believe.  I started to question all the truths and beliefs I had held so closely.  I am no longer resentful of this experience; rather I am thankful that it instilled a questioning and problem-solving nature in me (although, if we are to believe Aesop’s Fables, I ALWAYS had that questioning nature).

The Dalai Lama recently said, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.”*  Wouldn’t the world be a much better place is all religions followed this tenet?  To their credit, the Catholic Church has made huge strides on this issue (I think they learned a lot from the Galileo affair), however, they have a long way to go, and progress is slow.  The Fundamentalists, and many other religions, dismiss or re-write science, history, and reality to accommodate their beliefs, all while praying to the heavens for knowledge, wisdom, and guidance.

Aesop’s fable of the wagoner is a story of a man whose cart gets stuck in the mud.  He prays to the gods to help him; finally a god comes down and tells him to start pushing the cart, saying, “If you won’t lift a finger to help yourself, you can’t expect the gods or anyone else to come to your aid” = heaven helps those who help themselves.  If we ourselves are not willing to educate ourselves and sharpen our own problem solving skills, we deserve the ignorance so many of us are mired in.

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* http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/12/opinion/12dalai.html?pagewanted=all  The article is well worth reading.

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